Cuban revolutionary and politician Fidel Castro died yesterday at the age of 90. His brother Raúl Castro, his successor as Cuban president, announced his death on Cuban state television. Castro had made few public appearances in recent years, and in the rare photos meted out by the government during that time, he often looked to be in poor health, despite attempts to make it seem otherwise. Reactions to Castro’s passing are certain to be mixed, as the legacy he leaves behind him is one marked by contradictions and controversy.
Fidel Castro was born into relative privilege on August 13, 1926, in southeastern Cuba. His father owned a prosperous sugarcane farm in an area of the country dominated by the American-owned United Fruit Company, and a resentment toward American interference in Cuban affairs was instilled in Fidel from an early age. He attended Catholic boarding school and high school, where he excelled in both academics and athletics, and in 1945 began to study law at the University of Havana. He found himself drawn to politics and soon made his first forays into armed revolt, participating in a coup attempt in the Dominican Republic in 1947 and urban riots in Bogotá, Columbia, in 1948. After receiving his doctorate in 1950, Castro began to practice law and often took the cases of poor clients. These experiences heightened his sensitivity to economic disparities in Cuba, particularly those between the average citizen and wealthy American businessmen.
In early 1952, Castro became a candidate for the House of Representatives in elections scheduled for June, but in March, General Fulgencio Batista used the military to seize control in a bloodless coup and immediately canceled the elections. When legal attempts to remove Batista from power failed, Castro became convinced that armed revolution was the only answer.
On July 26, 1953, Castro led a force of 160 in an attack against the Moncada military barracks, hoping to incite a popular uprising. Most of the rebels were killed, however, and Fidel and his brother Raúl were arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Two years later they were released through political amnesty and fled to Mexico, where they assembled a group of Cuban exiles with Ernesto “Che” Guevara and called themselves the 26th of July Movement. On December 2, 1956, their tiny force of 81 disembarked from the boat Granma on the eastern coast of Cuba and once more tried to overthrow Batista. When that attempt failed, they fled to the mountains and for the next three years waged guerilla warfare against a professional army of 30,000 that was supplied with weapons by the United States. Over time, however, Castro’s forces swelled with volunteers and Batista’s army grew increasingly demoralized as rebel victories mounted. Finally, on January 1, 1959, sensing defeat’s approach, Batista fled the country. When Castro entered Havana a week later, he did so as Cuba’s de facto leader.
Castro initially gained popular support through promises to create honest government and reinstate civil liberties, and by immediately cutting rent and telephone prices in half for low-income citizens. But before long, he began to implement more-radical policies, nationalizing industry and commerce, implementing land reforms and expropriating American business and agriculture interests. When the United States reacted by halting its purchases of sugarcane, Cuba’s largest export, in February 1960, Castro signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union through which the sugarcane would be exchanged for oil, grain and credit. As a result, in January 1961, the United States officially severed diplomatic ties to Cuba, and the stage was set for the antagonism that would come to define the two countries’ relations.
On April 17, 1961, the United States launched a covert operation intended to overthrow Castro, bombing Cuba’s airfields and landing a force of 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles at Playa Girón in what would be known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion. The attack was repelled and made public by Castro, and the resulting fallout served only to heighten Cold War resentments. In November 1961, John F. Kennedy approved Operation Mongoose, a CIA plan to undermine or assassinate Castro, and in December, Castro declared himself a Marxist/Leninist, further strengthening Soviet support. Tensions peaked, when, in 1962, U.S. spy planes uncovered evidence that the Soviets had stationed ballistic missiles in Cuba. The ensuing Cuban Missile Crisis brought the countries to the very edge of nuclear war, until a deal was reached in which the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba in exchange for the United States removing its missiles from Turkey and halting its attempts to overthrow Castro. Operation Mongoose would continue in secret, however, and in the coming years a reported 600-plus unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Castro would be made.
In 1965, Castro established the Communist Party of Cuba and implemented a one-party system of government. He maintained a dictatorial control over all aspects of the country’s economics, politics and culture, and persecuted or imprisoned anyone identified as a dissident or deviant. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans would flee the country during his rule. At the same time, he expanded social services, established free education and health services and guaranteed employment for all citizens. The economy would remain weak, however, the result of trade embargoes imposed on Cuba and of Castro’s mismanagement of economic affairs, and during the 1970s Castro made it known, in private, that he would be open to normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States in exchange for the lifting of sanctions. His continued involvement in foreign wars in places such as Angola, Ethiopia and Nicaragua ultimately prevented this, as did President Ronald Reagan’s tough stance on Communism during the 1980s.
In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union began to crumble, Castro initially maintained a hard line, but when it finally collapsed in 1991, Soviet aid to Cuba (which totaled nearly $6 billion per year) came to an end, and Castro was forced to allow some economic liberalization. However he continued to exercise complete political control of the country until July 2006, when, while recovering from surgery for an intestinal disorder, he passed temporary power to his brother Raúl. Two years later he announced that he would not accept another term as president, bringing his almost half century in power to an end. In 2011, Fidel Castro stepped down as secretary general of the Communist Party of Cuba and was again succeeded by Raúl, who has since introduced various economic reforms in Cuba, including the loosening of restrictions on private enterprise. Raúl Castro and U.S. president Barack Obama also took steps to end political tensions between their countries and normalize diplomatic relations, which resulted in the reopening of their embassies in each country's respective capitol in July 2015.
Cuba has declared nine days of national mourning for Castro. Only time will tell what effect his death will have on the future of politics in Cuba or on its place in the international community, but whether he is remembered most as a revolutionary hero and champion of the underprivileged or as a ruthless and repressive dictator, Fidel Castro’s place as one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and pivotal political figures is secure.